Don’t you just love it when someone gives you a thoughtful book as a present? Perhaps a book that you have heard about but never got around to buying or an author you’ve never read before who turns out to be your new favourite? I’ve been sifting through new releases and chosen some of my favourites reads from 2014 – fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. The books on this list are books I’ve read and reviewed (click on title for my review) and books I like the sound of that I’ll spend Christmas reading (click on title for newspaper reviews). There’s a lot of great reading out there waiting to be given away!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. This year’s Booker Prize winner written by Australian Richard Flanagan deals with Australian prisoners of war forced to work on the Burma railway by their Japanese captors. Flanagan is interested in the paradox that war veterans often express: war is a gruesome experience but one which they wouldn’t want to be without. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has received pretty much universal critical praise. The Guardian called it ‘a classic in the making.’ On the top of my Christmas reading list.
My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. The first three of a series of four books by mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante (whose real identity is unknown) have become somewhat of a publishing sensation. Ferrante’s books are about the lifelong friendship of two girls who grow up in the slums in post-war Naples and are unusually candid and intimate portraits of womens’ lives. Rave reviews all round, including The New Yorker’s picky literary critic James Wood. Looking forward to reading this. Definitively a woman’s book.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. A ‘hauntingly beautiful’ story about a blind French girl and a German soldier whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. A National Book Award finalist and a New York Times bestseller. The short chapters make this long book very readable. Unputdownable and perfect for long plane journeys, according to reviews. On my bedside table already.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. A cleverly constructed literary thriller about the disappearance and death of teenage girl, Lydia, and the family left behind trying to make sense of it. Lydia, it turns out had plenty of secrets and family life is not as straight forward as it might appear at first. Mysterious, unexpected and well-written. In the vein of Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep, but utterly original. I’m reading this book at the moment and it promises to be very good.
A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard. An extremely personal, warts-and-all autobiographical novel and a philosophical pondering on how to live life and, most importantly, deal with death. Knausgaard’s writing is detailed, visual and perceptive, almost like a slow-motion film. Reading this book is like stepping back in time, back to your childhood when everything was experienced with an intensity that fades as you grow into an adult. A compelling book that has excited critics and one which I enjoyed immensely.
The Circle by Dave Eggers. In a not so distant future, Mae Holland secures the dream job with technology giant The Circle, a hybrid between Google, Apple and Facebook. The Circle has revolutionised the world and taken connectivity to a whole new absurd level with endless streams of emails, Facebook posts, like requests, invitations, surveys and tweets. Eggers’ highly readable and very amusing book The Circle paints an utterly nightmarish vision of the future, one that feels eerily near in time. Give it to your social media obsessed children!
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. A steaming love story with a twist and a brutal murder against the backdrop of post-World War I London. The Paying Guests is a completely gripping book, the kind of novel you read while walking around and that keeps you awake into the night. Few contemporary authors can beat Sarah Waters in reconstructing the feel and atmosphere of a period in history. In The Paying Guests, she skilfully does it again. Perfect for crime fans and anyone who enjoys well-written literature.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A great story about the immigrant experience in America through the eyes of, Ifemelu, a Nigerian young woman. Attractive, intelligent and outspoken Ifemelu, falls in love with quietly confident Obinze but Nigeria, grind to a halt by dictatorship and strikes, offers little hope for the future and Ifemelu emigrates to America, leaving Obinze behind. But, as immigrants before her know, the reality of America doesn’t always live up to the dream. Superb writing and very funny. One of my favourite books this year. Older teenagers will also enjoy this book.
Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Fans of John Williams’ Stoner, should enjoy Mrs Bridge by Euan S. Connell, another forgotten classic that deserves a revival. Mrs Bridge is the story of a lonely, unhappy housewife written in a similarly exquisite language, but with more humour. India Bridge lives a privileged picture perfect housewife life, ruled by conventions and manners. Married to respectable and hard-working Walter Bridge and with three children, Mrs Bridge judges other people ‘by their shoes and by their manners at the table.’ Connell’s satirical portrayal of 1920 to 1940s Middle America is hilariously funny, but also has a darker, timeless message.
The Son by Philip Meyer. An American Wild West family epic spanning five generations from the 1850s to present day, from cattle farming to oil bonanza via the American Civil War. This is a hard-core Western complete with scalp collecting natives, corrupt sheriffs and torture of various kinds. It’s not for the fainthearted, but a riveting read if you can stomach a bit of violence. Definitively a man’s book, although I liked it too!
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth. A well-researched and enviably elegantly written book about the Nordic countries, at times deadly serious, at others side-splittingly funny. Michael Booth, a Copenhagen based Brit married to a Dane, had enough of the one-sided gushing media coverage of the Nordic region and set out to discover the whole truth. With British humour at its best, Booth dissects the ‘Nordic Miracle’ and discovers that all’s not well.
Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi. Notting Hill’s favourite chef is out with a new mouth-watering cookbook. This time it’s vegetarian and he reaches beyond the Middle-East and the Mediterranean to the Carribean, India and Thailand for inspiration. For anyone who loves cooking new, experimental recipes. Yum!
Treat Yourself Natural by Sof McVeigh. McVeigh, a homeopath, has made an informative and beautiful book about herbs, flowers and berries and how to make use of them. There are recipes for anything from balms and ointments to soups and salads, all presented in stunning photographs. There is advice on how to treat hay fever, colds, cracked skin or spots using plants and how plants such as pot marigold, wormwood and conkers can be turned into potions, ointments or gels. My favourite is the chocolate lip gloss suggested for Valentines…
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Brain surgeons are awe-inspiring, almost God-like people with razor sharp minds and nerves of steel, and Marsh is one of the very best. In this book he gives a fascinating insight into his job and with moving candour describes the triumphs as well as the disasters. You’ll never think about your brain in quite the same way…Marsh’s touching yet completely unsentimental memoirs of his 26 years as one of Britain’s top neurosurgeons is a book that will appeal to anyone.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. Part memoir, part modern feminist manifesto, written by British journalist and TV presenter Caitlin Moran and the funniest and smartest book I have read in a long time. Moran is a truly modern feminist, a breath of fresh air, a much-needed new look at feminism. An uplifting, empowering read to give to your teenage daughter, your girlfriend, sister or even your mum!
The Library: A World History by James W. P. Campbell and Will Pryce. Library porn. Stunning photographs of the most beautiful libraries in the world and the history behind them. From austere libraries of Middle Age cloisters, via the extravagant Baroque and Rococo European libraries to the minimalist, high-tech libraries of our own time. An incredibly beautiful book. And, yes, you can have it on your coffee table.
100 Diagrams That Changed The World by Scott Christianson. A beautifully made and very interesting book with iconic diagrams, drawings or etchings that have had profound impact on our civilisation, from the first drawings of stars in China, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the colour wheel, the infamous plan of a slave ship to the first flush toilet, the London Tube map, the IKEA flat pack diagram and Steve Jobs drawing of the first IPod. My favourite is Tim Berners-Lee’s diagram for the world wide web with his supervisor’s comment ‘vague but interesting…’ A journey through history which slightly older kids will enjoy too.
Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience by Shaun Usher. Usher’s wonderful compilation of letters written to or by mostly famous people is a homage to the dying art of letter writing. It includes Gandhi’s letter to Hitler appealing for peace, Queen Elisabeth’s letter to President Eisenhower explaining how to make scones, Leonardo Da Vinci’s job application letter and many, many more. As fascinating as the content is the handwriting and choice of paper, Elvis Presley’s letter to President Nixon offering to become a federal agent written on American Airlines letterhead looks oddly inappropriate. Usher’s book started its life as a blog which now has over a million followers.
Awful Auntie by David Walliams. Walliams ‘best book yet’, according to the The Guardian, no small compliment given the success of the comedian’s previous six children’s books. My kids have devoured all Walliams’ books and this has been no exception. Fun for adults too and the perfect book to read aloud!
The Guiness Book of World Records 2015 by Guiness World Records. A perennial favourite with young boys, especially. Suspiciously similar to last year’s, but not necessarily in the eyes of a 9-year old.
Animalium by Kate Scott and Jenny Broom. A stunningly illustrated virtual museum of reptiles, birds, mammals, invertebrates, amphibians and fish with loads of interesting facts. Measuring 27 by 37 cm and printed on lovely quality paper, this really is a book to have on display and a perfect Christmas present for all ages.
Running Girl by Simon Mason. Over-intelligent, under-achieving rebel teenage hobby detective Garvie Smith, investigates the murder of a former girlfriend, causing frustration of the police inspector in charge. A well-written, funny and, at times dark, story with references to drugs and sexual abuse. A grown-up young adult book appropriate for older teens. Short-listed for the Costa Children’s Book Award 2014. 16+ years.
Listen to the Moon by Michael Mopurgo. Inspired by the true events of the Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives. The heroine, Merry MacIntyre, is a young girl on board that ship; we follow her story as she and her mother prepare to travel to England to visit her wounded Canadian father. Merry’s account runs alongside the story of ‘Lucy’, a girl who has been washed up on an uninhabited island in the Isles of Scilly. Another tearjerker from master storyteller Mopurgo. Also nominated for the Costa Award. Suitable for 9-12 year olds.
Inspired? Then go shopping!